Among massage therapists, Tony Neuman is something like royalty. A founding member of the school of seated massage technique in the United States in the 1980s, he spent three decades teaching massage across the U.S. and Europe before settling in Morocco in 2011.
Now he’s here, taking massage therapy to new frontiers in his work with Morocco-based firms.
The idea of bringing a massage therapist to the workplace is a radical one – unheard of, even, in the United States. But Morocco’s entrepreneurs are gambling on the idea that Neuman’s work might give their employees a competitive edge by drastically reducing levels of the stress hormones that can impair motivation and creative thinking.
Neuman is out to prove what he’s always known – that massage is good for the body and mind, and that rather than being a mere luxury, it is actually a valuable tool for promoting wellness and enhancing performance and interpersonal relationships.
What better place to prove this than in the workplaces of the most ambitious, most innovative young professionals in the world?
Tony spoke with me about his clients, his lifetime of work in popularizing massage as a wellness tool, and his belief that all people could live more fully engaged lives with a little help from the right masseuse.
Q: When people think of “massage,” they usually picture people laying on a table, possibly naked! Why did you start promoting seated massage, and how is Amma a unique practice?
A: There are many unique benefits to seated massage. The biggest one is that it’s accessible. As you say, you don’t have to be laying down naked for an hour to get one. People can access Amma fully-clothed, in public, in only fifteen minutes.
Even though it keeps you in a seated position, Amma still allows a tremendous amount of stress to be released from the biggest tension points on the body: the shoulders, neck, and upper back. These points are where we store stress, especially if we’re spending a lot of time sitting at a computer. The effects of replacing that stress with the sensation of therapeutic touch can be profound. Unrelieved stress can change our posture, the way we present ourselves socially, impair our thought processes, and even trigger headaches and muscle injuries.
These attributes also make Amma more portable, and, I like to say, “democratic.” Anyone can get a 15-minute seated massage, and you can set up in public, outdoors, wherever. Travel is a real passion of mine, as is interacting with different groups of people. So as a masseuse, I love the freedom that the Ama technique gives to both me and my clients!
Q: What are the most noticeable changes you see in returning customers? What changes between their first massage and their second?
A: Many clients come in the first time holding their shoulders very high and tight. This is a defensive posture we adopt in response to stress, and it can be exacerbated by hunching over a keyboard all day.
The sensation of holding yourself more “tightly” is about what you would expect. People feel very restricted, almost penned-in by life. They don’t experience as much freedom of movement or possibility as they could.
Massage works out the tension that has tightened around them. After regular massage, people begin showing up with very relaxed shoulders, an open posture that is relaxed and confident. They feel as though they have more freedom of movement, and more options.
By removing the messages our body stores that “we have to do this, this is the only thing we can do, we have to do this right now,” it can actually the thought processes. This is why startups are so interested in bringing massage to the workplace.
Q: You launched your business practices in the U.S., and later practiced in Europe. What made you decide to move to Morocco?
A: I am a teacher as well as a practitioner. If a thing is good, you should teach it, is my opinion. I launched my school in France and Switzerland in 1995.
In 2010 I was hired to train the spa practitioners in a spa in Casablanca. I was at that point, after 14,000 French students, I felt as though I had served France, you know? Like, more than one country deserves to learn these techniques – and I have always loved to travel and see new places and people.
After coming to Morocco, I instantly fell in love with the place and the people. So I moved here full-time. Like a true Aries, I tend to act first , and think later! But I usually am very happy with the results, and I am very happy to have come here! It is such an interesting place, full of colorful people.
Q: How did Moroccans perceive seated massage when you first introduced it? Was it easily accepted?
A: Morocco was an extremely difficult culture in which to create a market. It’s a good thing I moved here for sheer love of the country first – if I had looked at it from a business plan perspective, I would never have chosen this place!
Massage therapy was not well-known here already, and the idea of paying a strange man to touch you in public was quite strange to some. However, people who tried my massages always tended to come back for more. Now after six years, the idea is definitely becoming more widely accepted.
I actually work in the prison system here, as community service, as well as working with startups and doing private events. I massage both the officers and the inmates. Many of these guys, officers and prisoners alike, are very big, macho men. At first they were very skeptical of the idea of paying to have me massage them.
But now, they’ve changed their tune – in the groups I work with, these big guys will get one massage and then get right back in line for a second one! The idea that there’s nothing “scandalous” about massage therapy, that it really is a health and relaxation technique, is beginning to catch on.
One thing I find so rewarding about this work is not only do people receive a massage, but they also meet an American for the first time in their lives, and it is an American who is at their service in order to make them feel good. I am proud to be an ambassador of the U.S. in this capacity.
Also it is the first time for many women (or men for that matter) that they have allowed someone into their intimate space through structured touch. So they come away from the massage session having received much more than just as massage; they receive a cultural experience. And I have too. It’s very rewarding.
Q: What is your vision for your practice in Morocco? Where do you see your business in 5 years?
A: Ideally I would like to open a “Massage Oasis by Tony Neuman.” This would be free-standing chair massage pop up corners under my label around the country, as well as in other countries in Africa.
This would allow people in all sorts of public places to experience professional massage for the first time. People who were just passing through could get the unexpected surprise of having a massage! And more people could learn about the benefits of therapeutic massage.
Maybe then, massage therapists could practice and become available for people in more places around Africa.
Q: Based on your experience so far, Do you think Moroccan employees are provided with a happy and healthy work environment?
A: I work in quite a few offshoring call centers. It is not a particularly healthy environment; there is so much work to do, everyone is always wrought with stress. But I think that thanks to the ideas of “Generation X,Y and Z,” companies are improving the work environment.
Companies seem to be starting to realize that they can get better work from their employees if they use some of these techniques used by startups: that maybe introducing stress relievers and perks into employees’ days might actually help them to be more productive, rather than cutting costs in every way possible.
In the last 2 years my business has skyrocketed as companies scramble to offer healthier environments to their employees, and ways to make employees enjoy being at work.
Q: At what size does it make sense for a company to incorporate your services into their wellness programs? and why should they?
A: I work with start-ups of 6 people to call centers of 10,000. There is no minimum requirement. There is no requirement to keep me as a full-time staff member, so I can be at your office for a few hours a week, a few days a month – whatever you feel might benefit your staff.
The one thing I can say is that all the companies who are looking to have high employee retention rates are incorporating my services. They should and do, because absenteeism costs companies a fortune every year. If employees want to be at work, if they have positive associations with being there, they’ll show up more and stay longer. That means more productivity and less resources spent on training new staff to replace those who leave.
It is much cheaper to put the security rail on the top of the cliff than to send the helicopter down to the bottom of the cliff once the car has gone over the edge. Preventing absenteeism and employee burnout is a very good investment.
Massage therapy falls into a class of services to bring to work where you actually get much more than your dollar amount out – it will make little difference to your employees if you split the cost of a massage between them, but by bringing that unique service and experience into their work days, you give them a greater beneficial experience than they likely would have spending a fraction of the money themselves. When work is a good place to be, employees want to be there.
Companies should also use such therapies to communicate to their employees that they are concerned about their happiness and wellness and are pro-active in the creation of a healthy workplace. As biotech and nanotechnology advance at a dizzying pace, the need for human touch is more and more essential. It is something fewer of us are getting in our daily lives.
The incorporation of a seated massage program in à information based company is highly effective in bring balance to the equation. A human connecting with another human in a loving, empathetic, physical manner is precious in today’s high tech world!
Q: In the United States, Do you think companies put enough resources in place for corporate wellness programs? Is it part of the culture to promote well-being in the workplace?
A: I have been away from the US for 30 years. When I was last living there, Apple had just made its very first giant, slow computer ever. So I may be a big out of the loop.
But in my opinion, very few American companies achieve the ideal balance of investment, where employees spend a lot of time at work, stay motivated while they’re there, and are able to think innovative thoughts because work is a good place to be. I think American companies would find they were actually much more efficient if they invested more in health and well-being for employees at work.
Considering the level of stress in any company, the amount and cost of absenteeism, the cost of reduced productivity as well as the cost of training replacement workers, I would hire a massage chair practitioner at a rate that would allow him to serve each employee at the company for an hour each week!
Stress is a natural consequence of having ambitious goals. But it can also shut down the brain’s creative processes, make us less socially effective, and even cause health problems and cause employees to walk away from jobs.
So fighting stress happens, through practices like on-site therapeutic massage – I think it’s one of the best investments a company can make.